29.12.16 Jima to Yangshuo to Guilin to ……

Up in darkness and some last minute farewells to our flexible, friendly schoolmates. The mixed feeling of sadness to leave but excitment at being on the road hits. The taxi driver emerges from his house next to the school and his cab is filled with the stale, dank fug of last nights cigarette smoke. Two buses later and we pickup our online purchased train tickets from a queueless ticket counter. A first for us. To celebrate we indulge in an americano and a creme brulee latte and we idle away some of the three hours before the train is due. Next to the Taiwanese cafe is a Korean Fried Chicken restaurant which provides breakfast and train snacks are bought from the shop opposite. We have a 20 hour overnighter to Kunming in Yunnan province, our first overnight train since we arrived into Beijing in October.

The train is a T class, one of the older type with a top speed of 140kph and we have the middle and top bunks in a six birth open compartment on a carriage that sleeps 60 people. As we walk down the platform, we can read that the train originated in Shanghai and we can see that the bunks are already well populated. As we enter our carriage the air already feels tired with a stuffy, stale, claustrophobic atmosphere. Our bunks seem used but clean and unaware of bunk etiquette we climb up for a while. I eventually work out that the seats opposite our compartment are supposed to be for our use, so when they’re free, I climb down and stare out of the window.

We trundle through paddy fields where water buffalo roam and through huge cities where clusters of new high rises sprout up like mushrooms. Children run up and down the shared carriage walkway chased by shouting mothers. The middle aged man in the top bunk opposite Al climbs down and opens his case which is full of boxes of medical tablets. He rifles through a couple, reading the backs and opening packets and inspecting sachets of powders. I assume he is a travelling salesman but when he takes some tablets I realise he is ill. He spends the whole journey coughing and sneezing without covering his mouth or nose demonstrating cultural differences between us.

The afternoon dissolves into evening so its pot noodle time. A highpoint! Chicken for me and pepper beef for Al. Dessert are sweet coated peanuts.

We climb back up and read kindles as the light outside fades and the train fluorescent tubes warm up. The curtains are all drawn and then the lights are turned out and the smell of cigarette smoke wafts down the carriage.

26/27/28.12.16 Tai Chi School, Jima Village

Our last three days at the Tai Chi school have followed a routine, so we’re going to abbreviate it into one post. 

Our day would start at 7.30 with an alarm pulling us out of our comfortable slumber. Breakfast would be either plain congee (rice porridge), vegetable congee or egg noodle soup which we would savour with a view of either the sun or mist on the mountain landscape.

Our two hour morning class would start with a warm up and we would learn the movements of the initial 18 Tai Chi Forms from our teacher Ahwei. We would slowly follow his demonstration of the age old rhythmical moves, shifting our weight from one leg to the other as we twist our hips and move our hands and arms in set routines. Learning the forms was not easy as all parts of your body had to be considered in each position but it was relaxing and fun.

After class, either a bit more practice or relaxing and the drum would sound for lunch which would be freshly prepared each day by the chef, Kun. We would have around eight dishes, two or three meat, either pork, fish or chicken and the rest vegetables. Broccoli, ginger carrots, sweetcorn, garlic cabbage, aubergines, shaved cabbage stem and occasionally tofu in black bean sauce, always accompanied by steamed rice. The food was very good and I was always amazed how Kun produced so much hot food using one gas fired wok.

After lunch we would have a couple of free hours to chat or drink tea with fellow students, wander into Yangshuo or explore the local villages.

The afternoon class was led by either Master Ping or Master Kim and started with a more vigorous warm up. We would then focus on movements to help the spine and hips relax which not only helps with Tai Chi movements but can help with mobility, balance and backache. Some theory would also be explained to us. The class would end with refining the forms we had learnt so far.

At six the drum for food would bang and Kun would produce another set of delicious dishes for us, after which we would drink tea or relax and read in our room.

We both really enjoyed our first taste of Tai Chi and aim to do it again. The teachers were extremely knowledgeable and patient and our fellow students who came from the USA, Finland, Australia, Turkey, England and Russia were really welcoming. The location is beautiful, the food was great and we couldn’t recommend the school highly enough.

Click on this link for the school’s website

25.12.2016 Merry Christmas Everybody

Hope you all have a great Christmas!

We had a visit from Santa! Yes, even in China Santa knows we have been good and left us presents, we got a foldable waterproof rucksack, wind up torch each and hand warmers  (very necessary here!), we were chuffed to bits with the presents from a very kind Santa, it made our day. 

Guy lies in bed but when Irish coffee or a pint of baileys doesn’t arrive, we get up for a Christmas breakfast of noodles with egg. 

We then walk through the atmospheric mist (definitely not rain) and hire bikes from the posh hotel down the road, we are welcomed with smiles and Merry Christmas from the chinese owners. 

Trusty steeds hired we retire to the local skandi design cafe (next door to the communist party office) for Guy to have his first ever caramel macchiato which is declared amazing, I stick to americano, single origin of course, and a waffle. 

We chat to a couple from Shenzhen who work in Hong Kong about the pressures of HK working and being chinese. We have a double expresso.

Fully caffeined up we start our bike ride. It is 11.45.

We haul our tai chi aching limbs on to the bikes and cycle the route we walked the other day, the weather is completely different so Guy needs to stop every 200m and take the same shots as previously.  

We stop to see a bride in the (now familar) lying on the raft pose. She is getting absolutely drenched but doesn’t complain. Also amazed at this spectacle was an English teacher from HK, on holiday.  We spend ages observing the photos and discussing HK, teaching, Mongolia and how we wouldn’t lie on a bamboo raft in a wedding dress getting drenched.

We ease ourselves back on the bikes and cycle more and end up chatting to another couple, Bill and Helga, we chat to them until they get a ferry and we get hassled to buy a flower headband.  It really had a Christmas feel about the day, everyone is smiling, waving hello, Ni Hao, Merry Christmas, we are loving the atmosphere. 

More cycling takes us to Moon Rock, on the tourist cycle ride. We haven’t the limbs to climb the steps to see it,  we take a photo from a distance.  It is more atmospheric that way!

We follow the signs to the Big Banyon tree but don’t see it, decide it can’t be that big aand carry on. It is 2pm, we are starving so we make our way into town.

A sign for gin and tonic for 15 RMB  (less than £2) draws us in like moths to the flame. Guy orders home made chips, I have shashluka with home made bread, it is a wonderful alternative Christmas day brunch. 

Yangshuo town is full of tourists, mainly chinese, there are a few westerners around but not many. We wander around, amazed at the new shopping centre cum hotel complex that is opened despite the finishing touches not being quite complete, the wiring, pavement covers and edging etc. There is a procession of youngsters in costumes, we have no idea what for but take a photo regardless. 

We see a bar selling red wine. It is a no brainer. We order a bottle of ridiculously over priced red wine. It is delicious, we savour it for ages.

Another wander around and we see a bar with amazing lights. We have a beer then head to the curry house for a traditional British Xmas meal of dal, jeera rice, butter chicken and naan bread. It is delicious but incredibly rich compared to what we have been eating recently.

By now it is properly chucking it down with rain, dark and we have family Skype appointments to keep at home, 4 km away. We grab our Santa torches and set off cycling with no other lights on our bikes just like locals.

We manage to have time delayed, pixilated conversations with home and settle down to watch more Rick Stein and catch up with our fellow tai chi mates.

23.12.2016 Tai Chi Course Day 1

We were awake before the 7.30 alarm, eager to start our day! It is nice having a large bedroom so I take advantage and do some morning yoga before breakfast. Breakfast is congee, which I personally think is disgusting, milky overcooked rice, but when in Rome…..it is still minging. 

View from back window of our room.

We go upstairs for our first lesson with AhWei. He is very patient of us blundering, forgetful westerners. We make hard work of the smooth tai chi moves you see in the park, forgetting what to do with our hands, hips and where our gaze should be. By the end of 2 hours we have got a move (kind of) memorised and we feel relaxed and stretched. It is a calming exercise and I can see that once you can remember the moves it will be flowing and therapeutic exercise. 

The school dog, Hotpot (yep, you guessed it, so named as she was saved from the Hotpot) comes up to check our moves, and the school parrot screeches Ni Hoa, impersonates a screechy door and the vehicle reversing noise every few minutes which makes me chuckle.

The drum is sounded for lunch and we all sit down to simple vegetables, rice, sticky rice cakes, and more vegetable dishes. It is hard not to over eat, Guy doesn’t manage it.

Stuffed, we recline to our chilly room and write up diary,  blog and maybe partake in a small snooze, just to keep warm.

We are rudely awaken by our names being called. We are late for our second lesson! It starts at 3 pm not 3.30pm, ooops! 

Our teacher is Master Ping, and the man is amazing. He tells us about tai chi the basics, the links to chinese culture and gets our ‘forms’ more refined and do some standing meditation, not as easy as yoga, where you are lying on the floor and no one notices if you are having a doze (provided you don’t snore).

Feeling suitably stretched and relaxed we chill and wait for dinner drum to to sound. 

The evening is spent having tea made for us chinese style, and chatting to a Singaporean about Brexit. We learn that Master Ping is doing a Push Pull tai chi course at 8.30 so go and watch.  It is basically blokes pushing and pulling each other to get them off the mat. It seems hard work though and even the 13 yr old kid is holding his ground with Master Ping and is not a pushover. Eventually Master Ping asks Guy is he wants a go and he warms up like a footballer on the side of the pitch. He is eventually thrown into the ring, like a rag doll to the hounds…..in fairness he does really well and manages to stay upright and gives as good as he gets, and both him and his opponent leave the mat sweaty and out of breath. 

21.12.2016 Yangshuo

Recently I was been banned from blogging as I have had issues converting back to China after Taiwan.  I have been grumpy and miserable……can you believe it???

Anyway, I am resigned to staying here for a little longer. We have a day in Yangshuo, a beautiful town which is built up on tourism.  We are in off season so it is quiet, thankfully. 

Guy has my cold, so he gets to stay in bed and relax, can’t say I remember being given those luxuries but there we go. 

Our hostel owner suggests somewhere for lunch (yes, it is that late when Guy gets out of his sick bed) and we dutifully go, he orders food for us, it contains vegetables so we are happy.  I smother mine in chilli sauce which I will regret later, if you know what I mean! 

We have a wander but Guy needs to rest up, we have a cookery course at 3.30 so he relaxes whilst I sort out trains and do admin. 

Our course is at Cloud 9 restaurant with Jenny. She takes us to the market were we see a lot of familiar vegetables but also some new ones, so it is good to be able to ask someone about it all. The most interesting part for me was a dried goods store at the side of the market, it was packed with sauces, hazelnut leaves, mushrooms of all varieties, dried soyabeans and loads of spices and chilies on offer. A veritable Aladdins cave. 

The meat section was quiet, it was afternoon so most of their business was done in the morning, but a few intestines and hearts were around to remind you that nothing goes to waste in this country. There was also a pet section.

The size of the carp head was stunning!

Back to the school and we donned our outfits and began to chop.

We made 3 dishes, first was pickled cucumber salad, spicy, refreshing and delicious this is definitely be added to our repertoire when we get home. Second was chicken kung pao, which was tasty but I would add more chilli. 

Then we made dumplings with pork and chinese chives, mostly chives. Obviously these were delicious,  I don’t think we have met a dumpling we don’t like yet.

We spent sometime eating all the food, then had a wander around West Street and saw some of the tourists coming out. There are an amazing number of german bars here, not idea why, but hot dogs and german ale is freely available if you can afford it.

Guy needed an early night so I tucked him up and hoped he was better in the morning. .

20.12.16 Guangzhou to Guilin to Yangshuo

We ride the Guangzhou metro to the end of the blue line, Guangzhou South Train Station. Ticket office queues are reasonable so we soon enter the cavernous train station. After three weeks in Taiwan, I’ve forgotten the immense scale of China. You could park airliners in this space. The infrastructure of the station is amazing and shows a nation on the rise but there is still work to do. The high speed train pulls away and we pass dilapidated, ramshackle huts that look about to collapse but the tell tale sign of washed clothes drying in the sun give them away as residences. 

Time to try China train food. I buy a prawn wanton noodle soup for 30¥ and a cup of tea for 30¥!!! Its a microwaved pot noodle but is ideal for breakfast, even with the overpowering garlic.

At Guilin north train station there are many pushy taxi touts and at the bus station next door, there’s no ticket office and tourist info is closed. We haggle with a driver whose kind eyes rest above a beaming smile. It was a good choice, as the journey is filled with easy listening classics, Take me Home Country road, California Dreaming, and a seasonal When a Child is Born. Its worth paying over the odds for some good tunes. He drops us at Guilin South bus station and warns up about touts overcharging us for tickets to Yangshuo. His English is good but his vocabulary doesn’t stretch to irony.

The bus to Yangshuo takes an hour and a half along a road we watch being built. Unexpectedly and without warning, cars, buses and trucks drive towards us on our side of the dual carriageway, diverted from their side as tarmac is laid. Further along, dust swirls like mist and our driver races cars and farm trucks over gravel and mud for the best position through the lumpy terrain. The shock absorbers on the bus died long ago. We reach Yangshuo and catch the final bus of the day, then walk to the hostel.

The hostel has a roof terrace with views over the Liu river and karst landscape beyond.

The hostel owner takes us next door for food where we taste Guilin rice noodles with beef and pickles.

I’ve caught Alison’s cold which has developed further into man flu, so we have a quick wander round Yangshuo’s developed downtown, where many tourist restaurants and souvenir sellers vie for your attention, before crashing early and posting the many blog posts we’ve recently written!